Auschwitz through new eyes: Survivor, teens take emotional tour of Poland and Hungary

Annie Glass survived Auschwitz. In June, she returned to see the barracks, the security fence, the gate that states “Work will set you free.”

She had returned to Poland on one other occasion since she left her native country in 1951. But this time, the 85-year-old woman had a new friend by her side: a 16-year-old San Francisco teenager, Ida Cuttler.

“Oh, we became the best of friends,” Glass said.

Annie Glass (left) and Ida Cuttler. photo/courtesy of ida cuttler

Glass and Cuttler traveled to Poland from June 29 to July 8 as part of Next Chapter, a school year–long program that since 2006 has linked 25 Bay Area teens with Holocaust survivors. For the first time this year, the program culminated in a summertime trip to Poland.

“I was definitely seeing Poland not only through my eyes but through Annie’s eyes as well,” Cuttler said. “When things got emotional, I was there for her, and she was there for me. It felt great to be a part of her discovery of a place that was once so anti-Semitic and is now emerging as a place interested in Jewish life and history.”

Next Chapter is sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture.

Eight students participated this year. Every Thursday, from October through May, they met at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco to learn about Polish and Holocaust history, and even about how to properly interview someone to get their oral history. Teachers included historians from the Holocaust Center of Northern California and Holocaust survivors, scholars, archivists and social workers from JFCS.

Students were then paired with a Polish survivor. Cuttler and Glass spent many afternoons together while Cuttler asked the woman about her life before, during and after the war. The result was a 12-page history authored by Cuttler that chronicles one generation’s war experience, and the younger generation’s reaction to those stories.

“When Annie says ‘Auschwitz,’” Cuttler writes in Glass’ oral history, my heart beats a little quicker and gets lodged in my throat because I’m afraid to hear of the suffering that is surely to come.”

“There were moments when [the interviews] were hard,” Cuttler said. “But I was actually more emotional when we went to Poland and I was there with her, when I was actually seeing the stuff she had talked about.”

Annie Glass (left) and Ida Cuttler. photo/courtesy of ida cuttler

Glass was the only survivor to accompany six teenagers from Next Chapter to Poland and Hungary. They visited historical sites, including death camps, museums and synagogues.

“When they walked through Auschwitz and Krakow, the commentary Annie provided was something they could not get anywhere else,” said Taylor Epstein, the youth programs coordinator at JFCS, who went to Poland with the students.

Students also got an up-close look at contemporary Poland via such events as the Jewish Cultural Festival, an annual music and cultural festival in Krakow this year attended by 13,000 people.

Glass couldn’t believe her eyes — throngs of people in the streets, most of them non-Jews, eager to get a taste of klezmer music and Jewish culture.

“People need to go to Poland not to see that monument or this monument, but to see the rebirth of Jewish life,” Glass said. “Poles are now so eager to be connected with Jews. What’s going on in Krakow, I couldn’t believe it — I was really surprised and amazed.”

Annie was born Chana Glatt in 1924 in Wierzbnik, now called Starachowice. She had three sisters and one brother, all of whom attended Hebrew school after school every day. Her parents owned a fabric store.

She was just 15 years old when the Germans occupied her town in 1939.

“That is one year younger than I am,” Cuttler wrote. “I cannot even begin to imagine what that would be like if, one day, everything I had ever known would be changed forever.”

Glass’s brother, older sister and parents died at various points during the Holocaust. She and her two other sisters managed to survive together for nearly three years in a ghetto, during which time they managed to find work at a labor camp, as opposed to being deported to a death camp.

In 1942, the three remaining sisters were sent to Auschwitz. They watched out for each other there, which might be why the three survived nearly three years in the concentration camp, as well as the death march, when the Nazis forced thousands of Jews to march in January 1945 from Auschwitz to Germany.

Many died on the march. Glass watched as people collapsed or fell into the river. By spring, they had reached Germany.

“It wasn’t human, absolutely not,” she said. “But I consider myself a very strong person — this is a fact. And thank God I survived and can tell my story.”

Glass and her sisters eventually all moved to San Francisco. One sister is still living, and she and Glass live within blocks of one another in the Sunset District.

“For a compassionate person like Annie to emerge from something so terrible shows us that the human soul really does go toward kindness,” Cuttler said.